REIMS, France — Although The Spirit of the Underground could just as well be the title of a ‘90s techno-house compilation, in Reims it is the name of the 14th edition of Experience Pommery — an annual contemporary art show mounted in and around the wine cellars of Domaine Vranken Pommery. Whereas ecstasy typically floats the techno boat, here cold champagne is the inspiration for 20 multi-generational, international artists to create new work in situ.
Pommery’s Spirit of the Underground could have easily sprayed silly eye-candy nonsense around (we all know the high-end contemporary art market is a bubble). But I liked that the Palais de Tokyo’s curator-at-large of the urban art Lasco Project, Hugo Vitrani, used this opportunity to go deep, generally taking a dark occult route. He explained:
The underground is a territory of fantasy. We stealthily advance as the unexpected threatens and attracts at the same time. It is a no-go-zone whose augmented reality is haunted by chimeras, magma heat, snakes with three heads, shamanic rituals, mysteries, convulsive beauties, and electric veins.
More or less (well, less actually) delivering on this drunk, dark vision are gritty art installations that can, when I let them, make me feel a bit bombed — afloat between the marvelous and the menacing.
The highly diverse artists showing here compete not only with each other but with the grandeur of the vineyard, especially Tania Mouraud’s digital curved wall piece at the entrance “VANITASVANITATUMETOMNIAVANITAS” (2018). The Domaine is grandiose, with 18 kilometers of wine cellars that serve as art galleries dug into ancient Roman chalk pits. Rows and rows and rows of beautifully stacked bottles of champagne walled my underground walk that began on the ground floor with a weirdly hung tribute painting show of the work of Saeio, a former graffiti writer and co-founder of the PAL (Peace and Love) graffiti collective, who died in a car crash in 2017. His Puta Locus project functioned both as title for his funky-clunky semi-abstract paintings and for the PAL manifesto that praises transgressive graffiti as an extended pictorial practice. Spaciously hung on wire fencing are paintings of fat letters in dialogue with gestures of disappearance, erasure, superposition, and recovery. The idea was to express the ephemeral status of graffiti: the traces of interactions that are created with peer writers and even wall-cleaning teams. But since the paintings themselves are not very interesting, after first glance my attention swung to the room-filling sounds of “Canon” (2018) — a magisterial audio installation by Wouter Van Veldhoven made from junkyard-ready tape recorders and found tapes. It was endlessly fascinating to watch him continuously build-up and break down his weird wall of noise. It was one of the best things in the show.
Moving on and going down, I was very impressed how Olivier Kosta-Théfaine’s rhizomatic “Contemplate the Sky” (2018) installation, made only with the flame of cheap cigarette lighters, unites and visually energizes the ceiling of the entrance to the wine cellars, connecting the entranceway to the infinite. The descent is accompanied by Pablo Valbuena’s mesmeric sonic-kinetic-luminous installation “Kinematope (Pommery)” (2016) that techno-electrifies the steep 116-step staircase. I was off to a good start, but once deep inside the cellars, some 30 meters underground, things became dingy and dicey. Many of the installations, like Antwan Horfee’s overturned, painted bouncy castle, for me, were dumb fun but too slushy and specious for many residual aesthetic benefits to surface.
But there was some good stuff to be found. My favorite pieces were the somber, abstract neon, sonic installation by street-artist SKKi©, called “The Memory Hole” (2018), Keiichi Tanaami’s joyous “Oh Yoko!” (1973) animation of John Lennon’s 1971 song by the same name, and Florian and Michaël Quistrebert’s digital animation “Void Fires” (2018).
Gratified and dog-tired with the plethora below, on resurfacing and exiting Domaine Vranken Pommery I was strongly attracted to a silver aluminum sculpture just outside the front door by Bruno Gironcoli. His masterful “Untitled” (1997–2003) is an idiosyncratic, large-scale, machine-like sculpture that seems both anthropomorphic and science-fiction-based. As such, the piece’s scaled-up and distorted models of odd domestic items (such as butt plugs, bunny ears, and alien cutlery) suggested many possibilities of perpetual multiplication. This sculpture was multiple and unified simultaneously. The piece’s unified-but-distributed graphology, seems to me, says something ambivalent about net culture and artificial life and the language of sculpture in terms of assemblies and fusions in which archetypes and trivial elements meld to form faux futuristic conglomerates. This virtuoso sculpture felt full of a sense of sinister, if humorous, proliferations abuzz with organizational patterns of becoming. I loved how it mixed flamboyance with a hard materialistic silver sensationalism that demanded my aesthetic contemplation.
As I sat in the sun with “Untitled” and happily toiled to solve the ad infinitum conundrums it supplied, I kept wanting to fabricate fairy tales out of this vague but grisly mélange of malleable and combinatory superfluity. But “Untitled” kept slipping in and out of narration. It was time to drink some bubbly.
L’Esprit souterrain (The Spirit of the Underground) continues at Domaine Vranken Pommery (5 place du Général Gouraud, Reims, France) through June 15th. The exhibition is curated by Hugo Vitrani.